As part of my ongoing quest to improve my writing skills, I have been reading a series of novels written by a midlist author (whom I am not going to name), trying to decipher what it that I like about her work and what I don’t like.
Midlist is a term used by the traditional publishing industry referring to books that aren’t bestsellers, but which sell enough to justify their publication. If these authors can build a consistent sales record, the big publishers will probably want future books from that author.
Most books published today are midlist titles. Bestsellers earn the largest portion of overall royalties, but midlist novels are steady earners over a long period, and many of these authors have devoted fans.
So, I have been binge-reading this series of mystery novels, trying to decide why she sells enough to keep her publisher buying her books, and in the process, I have figured out why she’s not a bestseller. I have come up with a list of strengths and shortcomings, things I can look for in my own work.
- Her plots tend to be intriguing. She is creative with her murders and doesn’t rely on cliché situations.
- She knows how to sink a hook. The details of how and why each of the murders are discovered is interesting, and at the beginning, logical, so you keep reading.
- She has good skills in world building. The ethnicity of the immigrant Armenian neighborhood feels solid, as if you know it well.
- The main characters reveal themselves slowly. They have an air of mystery around them. You never feel like you know all there is to know about them.
- Her books tend to follow a formula that is recognizably hers, which is why she can put out four novels a year. In that regard, they are like romance novels. Once you’ve read the first three in the series, you know the basic story line.
- They’re not memorable in any way. The one thing that keeps you reading is curiosity to discover who out of the many possibilities actually did it.
- Toward the middle and the second half, the story arc becomes jerky, at times almost flatlining. The eye wants to skip pages.
- Then suddenly, it’s so chaotic it’s impossible to follow what just happened, and no matter how many times you go back and re-read it, you can’t understand what is going on.
- References to habits, such as obsessive chain smoking, start out doing the intended job, conveying a personality. But these references soon become repetitive, over-used, inadvertent crutches.
- Her political and technological references place these books firmly in a certain period – a double-edged sword. The political references are the biggest Achilles heel. She began writing the series in in the early nineties. Publishing schedules being as slow as they are, these references immediately made the books feel slightly out of date, rather than set in an era.
- By book three, the Main Character hasn’t grown or evolved. They’re still locked firmly in their own time-warp.
- Her publisher misses a lot of proofing errors. This is every indie’s nightmare, so it’s annoying to find so many flaws in a book by a reputable publisher.
We all know what we love when we see it. But unless we out-and-out hate something, being able to identify what we don’t love is sometimes difficult.
And this concept is especially true about our own work. Those of us whose vocation is writing fiction must work to ensure our voice and writing style is current and fresh. It is a quest that can take a lifetime and involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Books on craft are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.
You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. This is why I study how books in all genres, both good and bad, are constructed.
When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study them. What did you love? What did they do right and how can you incorporate those techniques into your work?
When you don’t like a novel, ask yourself why it failed to move you. What did the author do wrong and how could you write it better?
Read widely, dissect what you read, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.